Introduction to the Second Edition of Marxism and the USA

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Marxism and the U.S.A. was the first title produced by Wellred USA, a modest milestone reflecting growing interest in the ideas of Marxist in the United States. The book was written at a time when George W. Bush was president, a time when many around the world – including many on the left – considered the U.S. to be one reactionary bloc, devoid of class struggle or revolutionary potential. Woods’ aim was to dispel these misconceptions, draw on the marvelous traditions of struggle throughout U.S. history, and inspire those new to the ideas of Marxism to learn more – and get involved. Providing one example after another, he showed how the ideas of socialism and communism are not recent, “foreign” importations, but have deep roots in the American tradition itself. He also debunks many of the common misconceptions Americans have about socialism, taking up the question of socialism and religion, freedom vs. dictatorship, an explanation of what happened in the Soviet Union and more.

Authors Howard Zinn, Leo Huberman, John Dos Passos, Eric and Philip Foner, Herbert Aptheker and others have explained U.S. history from the perspective of the working masses, delving into little known details and episodes and presenting them in an easy to understand style. Some, like Huberman, have focused on providing an economic history of the U.S. in popular form (We, the People). Others, like Aptheker and the Foners, have explained in great detail specific periods or labor struggles. Despite his later drift to the right, Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy is a literary masterpiece, blending primary sources with fictional realism to portray the stormy years of bitter class struggle in the early twentieth century. For many American activists, Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is their first introduction to the country’s rich history of class struggle. And Gore Vidal, although not writing from a working class perspective, has provided penetrating insight into the foundations and founders of the American republic, and its particular form of democracy.

But none of the above writers present the broad sweep of this vast topic from a consistently revolutionary Marxist perspective, and this is what sets Woods’ book apart. In this slim volume, he weaves together many of the most important, and often not-well-known episodes of American history. In a series of short and engaging articles, he provides example after example of the heroic revolutionary and labor traditions of this much-maligned country.

As a young country, the history of the United States and its meteoric rise to world prominence is compressed into a few intense centuries. The richest country on earth certainly has its vast natural resources to thank, in part, for its position. But above all, it was built on the backs of millions of African slaves, European indentured servants, Native Americans, and the endless stream of political and economic refugees who have searched for the “American Dream” on these shores.

Unfortunately, most American students regard history as dry and dusty, an endless and disconnected recitation of dates and individuals. But history need not be “one damn thing after another,” as the American Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put it. It is a complex and contradictory process, driven forward by the struggle over control of the surplus wealth created by the labor of the masses. As Karl Marx explained in the Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Or, as he further elaborated in his introduction to The Critique of Political Economy:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

This concisely sums up of the Marxist approach to history, also known as “historical materialism.” Once we begin to understand history, not as a random series of unrelated episodes, but as an infinitely complex but nonetheless tightly interconnected chain of events involving mass social forces, in which cause becomes effect and effect becomes cause, a whole new world opens up. No longer does it appear to be more or less irrelevant collection of useless trivia. Instead, but the experiences of past struggles of the working class come alive, ripe with lessons for our own struggle to change the world today.
From the communistic traditions of the Native Americans, to the revolutionary democratic beliefs of the Pilgrims; the Declaration of Independence and the revolutionary defeat the mighty British Empire; from the slave revolt of Nat Turner and John Brown’s implacable struggle against slavery, to Lincoln’s revolutionary expropriation of billions of dollars of human property; from the early Labor Movement to the Flint sit-down strike, American history is full of tragedy and triumph, of individual sacrifice and collective struggle for “Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

When Marxism and the U.S.A. first appeared, the comrades of the Workers International League were an infinitesimal minority in the U.S., scattered far and wide across the country, and still in the initial infant stages of developing our ideas, program, methods, and traditions. In the years since, we have made modest advances, with a clear program, growing experience and connections with the Labor Movement, and several well-established branches in a handful of major cities. This book played an important role in drawing together those initial disparate forces into a unified organization, based on common political principles and aims. When we founded the WIL in 2002, we paid homage to the militant traditions of the U.S. working class:

“The US working class has a proud and militant tradition. We look to the accumulated experiences of the American working class—the great railroad strikes, the mine wars, the formation of the Teamsters and the CIO, the Flint sit down strikes, and more for inspiration. We rest on the traditions of William Sylvis, Albert Parsons, Mother Jones, Joe Hill, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Big Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs, John Reed, Louise Bryant, and the millions of rank and file workers who led and participated in the great struggles of the past. And we are confident that the greatest days of the US labor movement are still to come.
“We also base ourselves on the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, and on the further development of these ideas by the supporters of the In Defence of Marxism [] website. The ideas of scientific socialism have been tarnished in the minds of millions by the horrific experience of Stalinism and the continued lies and distortions of the ruling class. We believe that Stalinism was a historical aberration and a criminal totalitarian caricature of genuine socialism. We fight for international socialism, where the world working class has full democratic control over the means of production, distribution, and exchange, in harmony with the environment. Without democracy there can be no socialism! A workers’ government in the U.S. would take over the vast wealth now owned by just a handful of individuals and democratically use it in the interests of everyone.”

Much has changed since the first edition of Marxism and the U.S.A., and yet so much has remained fundamentally the same. The years of G.W. may be behind us, but his core policies live on under the Obama administration. The sincere hopes of millions for real “change” have been dashed. As the economic crisis drags on, and as millions of Americans pass through the “School of the Democrats,” they will learn through bitter experience that there is no fundamental difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. Already, a growing number of Americans support the idea that Labor must break with the Democrats and form a political party of, by, and for the working class majority. The need for a mass party of Labor based on the unions has never been more acute than now. It is therefore vital that we learn from the struggles of millions of ordinary Americans, past and present, and prepare for the mass struggles on the horizon.

It is impossible to analyze even a fraction of the vast scope of U.S. history in such a short work. This is why we are supplementing this edition with new material produced by members of the Workers International League, as we continue to deepen and develop our understanding, learn from our class’ experience, and above all build our organization in preparation for the next American revolution. The 1934 Teamsters strike in Minneapolis was a watershed for the Labor Movement and the young forces of American Trotskyism. David May’s article describes the struggle in its context and draws on the lessons to be applied today. Tom Trottier’s overview of the early years of the Socialist Party of America is yet another example that socialist ideas once had deep roots in the United States, roots we must once again establish. And my own piece on Shays’ Rebellion, explores one of the seminal events of the post-American Revolutionary War period, which had a profound effect on the future development of the country.

Time and experience have proven Alan Woods’ basic premise correct: the United States is a society torn apart by tremendous class contradictions, and sooner or later, the militant revolutionary traditions of the past will return on an even higher level. The millions-strong anti-Iraq war movement was more than a protest against the war; it reflected a deep-seated discontent with the status quo. The tragedy of Katrina exposed the profound inequality and racism upon which the American capitalists “divide and rule” and maintain their power. The magnificent movement of undocumented immigrant workers showed the enormous potential power of the mobilized working class. The factory occupation at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, inspired by the occupied factory movement in Venezuela, showed that militant action does get results.

The re-emergence of the student movement, with occupations and mass protests against cuts in education are an indication of things to come, as literally millions of young people weighed down by student loans cannot afford school or find work when they graduate. The thousands protesting on Wall Street against the economic crisis and bank bail outs, and the movement against home foreclosures that even in the “belly of the beast,” the class struggle is never far from erupting to the surface in one form or another. To paraphrase W.E.B DuBois, these more or less isolated eddies of the class struggle are swirling more and more into a great current. The revolutionary implications for the future are clear. Or, as the Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky put it, when commenting on his brief stay in New York City before returning to Russia in March of 1917: “[The United States is] the foundry in which the fate of man is to be forged.”

John Peterson
February 10, 2010

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Introduction to Marxism and the USA

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